The early seventies were obviously an interesting time - inside or out. What anarchists like to call 'the spirit of revolt' (or dodgy authoritarians 'the insurgent virus') was definitely on the loose. Outside, the miners and others on strike; inside, sitdowns and protests for better conditions. In such circumstances the perpetual questions - what can be done and who can be trusted? - carry a lot more weight, especially on the inside of the repression industry.
Barker doesn't give us a Punch and Judy version, clichés to show that 'the struggle continues' - he obviously knows the value of a sense of humour too well for that. Not that a sense of humour means giving any ground: 'The Home Office, how's that for a laugh. Anywhere else it's the Ministry of Internal Security. Only the English could be so brazen, the name suggesting warm fires, slippers and general cosiness while in fact they're smashing down doors and ripping homes apart.' (At least then, unlike now they didn't have a slogan saying they were 'building a safe, just and tolerant society'!)
As well as the acts of resistance - from a spectacular paint-bombing to work to rule in the workshops - we also see the dynamics of relations between the cons: the balancing act, 'knowing how to live with other people in a small space, a necessary respect between cons that gave us the chance of coming out sane' as well as tension and comeback. There's also the crack, banter shooting off on tangents:
'"Sure, detection was never the name of the game, you can leave that to your man Sherlock Holmes."
"All Sherlock Holmes would get is a pull for cocaine possession…" …
"Dr. Watson grassed him up," I said. "He was always trying to get him to kick the habit"'
It makes a lot of 'gangster nostalgia' look like a lovingly drawn six pound note.
But what sticks most in my mind is the sheer poetry of some of the moments: the trees seen from a prison van: 'trees everywhere, fat ones, thin ones, tall and short, all reassuring with their grounded stillness. Nearly naked too, just starting to bud, the intricacy of their branches and twigs sharply focused.'; the smell of the night as dark comes on. Not like a Wordsworth in Colditz, nose stuck in a bunch of daffodils, but awake to life, as well as fighting. Obviously poetry, like the struggle for freedom, can take root even in places designed to eradicate it.
Bending the Bars: Prison Stories by John Barker
Christiebooks, PO Box 35, Hastings, TN34 2UX
123 pages £9.95 + postage